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Blame America First: Asia-Pacific’s Harmonious Seas

3:01 PM, Jul 1, 2013 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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One of the nations most concerned with the rise of the PRC as a maritime power is Vietnam. Having fought a short war with the PRC 30-some years ago where the northern part of the country borders the PRC’s Guangxi Province, Vietnam remains very wary of Beijing’s intentions. By way of example, one of the primary missions for the Chinese submarine base on Hainan Island “would be to interdict the sea traffic going into Haiphong [Harbour] and thereby cut off the Vietnamese capital in a time of conflict,” explained one western defense industry executive. “For these and other potential threats the Vietnamese navy are now very interested in the advantages of acquiring U.S.-made anti-submarine warfare aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin P-3 Orion, and like several of the nations in the region the air force would love to have some squadrons of F-16s to supplement their current fleet of [Russian-made Sukhoi] Su-27 fighters.”

But before any sales can be made to Hanoi, the country has to be taken off the State Departments International Trade and Arms Restrictions (ITAR) list of nations that are forbidden to purchase weapon systems from the United States. It is a listing that dates back to the Vietnam war and is arguably a Cold War anachronism today.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s actions to date show that they understand nothing about the utility of using arms exports to send messages to our adversaries, reassure our friends, and build bridges and new alliances with nations that have not traditionally been aligned with Washington.

One senior U.S. military official even drew aparallel with today’s territorial disputes in the South China Sea and Europe in the 1930s. “If you listen to the arguments that the PRC makes about its claims in different areas of this region what you hear is a modern-day version of ‘this is our Sudetenland,’” he said in a discussion between panel sessions.

But President Obama’s speech in Berlin about three weeks later was another demonstration of how his national security priorities must be formulated in some parallel universe. While obsequiously seeking more nuclear arms control agreements with Russia, he turned wishy-washy on the importance of containing the most potentially dangerous nuclear power of them all—North Korea. He allowed only that Pyongyang “may be seeking” its own atomic arsenal.

Given these kinds of performances it is hard to see these Asian nations having much faith in Washington as a security partner they can count on in times of trouble. This makes it equally difficult to see the tensions and potential for conflict going anywhere from where they are now to worse. But—do not worry—no matter how bad the picture may seem, when this conference takes place again in Singapore next year, you can be sure that someone will find a way to explain why it is all America’s fault.

Reuben F. Johnson is a correspondent based in Kiev, Ukraine, covering Russia and Asia for IHS Jane’s in London, a defense and foreign affairs information group.

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